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The Guardian Lions: Foo Dog Tattoo Meanings, History, Ideas, & Photos

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Peony is a tattooed tattoo enthusiast who loves studying and discussing tattoo history and meanings. Japanese themes are her favorite.

The Foo Dog (also known as Fu Dog, Shi Shi, Chinese Stone Lions and Imperial Guardian Lions) tattoo shows a magnificent creature with a curly mane and menacing snarl, but did you know that it’s not actually a dog? What exactly is it, how did it come about, and more interestingly, why is it known as a “dog”? We delve deeper into the history and take a closer look.

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A Foo Dog Is Not a Dog, but a Big Cat

From its name, one would assume that the Foo Dog is the embodiment of a mythical canine. However, this cannot be further from the truth — the Foo Dog, in reality, is a lion. And these lions have a prestigious title too: the Imperial Guardian Lions (since they come in pairs, which we’ll talk about below.)

But why then would you conflate a dog with a cat, its purported “natural enemy”? In fact, it's unclear exactly when or why this happened. The suggestion that these Chinese Guardian Lions were dogs first came from Western interpretations, likely due to a language hiccup where the true meaning was lost in translation. The exact story remains unknown, but there are several muddled explanations on how it might have evolved over time.

Chinese Foo Dog

Chinese Foo Dog

Why do we call these lions "foo dogs"?

  • It was a simple mis-identification of the lions as an extremely rare breed of small- to medium-sized dogs—known as the “Sacred Dog of Sinkiang” or “Chinese Foo Dog”¹ — that's said to be a crossbreed of the ancient Chow Chow from Mongolia and the Northern European hunting dogs, presumably from Foo Chow (福州; Fu Zhou), southern China.

    Originally bred to guard Buddhist temples, they were especially named “the Dog of Fo” after the Chinese word “Buddha” (Fo).
  • They're also mistaken for the Chow Chow (鬆獅犬; literal translation: fluffy lion dog) and Pekingese (獅子狗; literal translation: lion dog) species. “獅” means “lion.”
(Left to right) Dog breeds: Chow Chow, Pekingese

(Left to right) Dog breeds: Chow Chow, Pekingese

The Evolution of the Foo Dog

Xie Zhi

The Xie Zhi (獬豸) is another Chinese mystical beast that appeared during the same period as the Imperial Guardian Lions, and their uncanny similarity meant that they were often mistaken for the other.

According to Chinese literature, the Xie Zhi had a cattle-like body and a horn on its head (like a Unicorn). The head resembles that of a lion, with flowing locks of fur around it.

Both righteous and benevolent, the Xie Zhi is a creature of justice and fairness. Form early scholar’s notes, the Xie Zhi is said to possess an innate ability to discern the innocent from guilty, biting or ramming the wrongdoer in fights and disagreements.

Haetae

As Xie Zhi made its way to Korea, it gained a new name — “Haetae.” The Haetae looked very similar to the Xie Zhi with some modifications. For one, it had scales on its body as opposed to fur, and there were short feathers under its arm which looked like wings. Its horn and lion head remained.

Komainu

The Haetae then moved on to its neighbor, Japan. There it was referred to as “Korean Dogs” or Komainu (狛犬; literal translation - Koryŏ dog — Koryŏ would later be known as Korea).

(Left to right) Xie Zhi, Haetae, Imperial Guardian Lions

(Left to right) Xie Zhi, Haetae, Imperial Guardian Lions

Where Did the Original Foo Dog Come From?

It is said that during the second dynasty of Imperial China (206 BC–220 AD) — the Han Dynasty (漢朝; Han Chao), trade flourished along the Silk Road. With the business of goods and services came the exchange of cultures and beliefs. It was said that lions were first brought into China from Central Asia as gifts and tributes of the highest form.

They were imbued with religious symbolism as Buddhist monks relate how lions are the protector of Dharma and a prime symbol in Buddhism. Statues of lions had long been a common feature seen around places of importance (such as palaces and temples) in India, were Buddhism had originated from.

Various Bodhisattvas such as Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom; Prajñā) and Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) are depicted riding atop a lion; Siddhārtha Gautama aka Buddha, was also known as Śākyasiṃha or “Lion of the Shakya”.

As such, lions carry positive associations with both Buddhism and Hinduism, and are looked upon as protectors rather than predators.

Manjushri Thangka is a painting by Ies Walker

Manjushri Thangka is a painting by Ies Walker

Progressively, China had started to incorporate these magnificent creatures as symbols of defence and security, believing that they possessed mythical protective energies. They created beautiful, regal lion statues carved from expensive stones or painstakingly cast out of iron or bronze. Usually made from marble or granite, they were referred to as Stone Lions or Shí shī (石獅).

Initially used only to guard the gates of the Imperial Palace, the Foo Dog started to be more widely prevalent. As families became more affluent, prospering from the Silk Road, the use of Fu Dogs got adopted outside of royalty.

Due to the “Golden Age” in Chinese history — having named so because of the significant economic growth and increased wealth during that period — well-to-do households and those of the elite would have these Stone Lions placed on either side of their home entrance (such as the main gates or door). The Foo Dogs acted as spiritual guards, banishing anyone who might bring along ill intentions into their homes.

Bronze, Chinese lion head door knocker on a traditional wooden door.

Bronze, Chinese lion head door knocker on a traditional wooden door.

Besides being used as statues, they were also seen designed as door knockers, pottery and incense burner legs.

Foo Dog Tattoo | Winson Tsai

Completed Foo Dog (from above video).

Completed Foo Dog (from above video).

Foo Dog Tattoos for Luck and Feng Shui

With modernization, Stone Lions are now easily mass produced and not at all expensive or reserved for the rich. It is still a common feature found around asian businesses in the present world; they are usually placed outside or inside buildings to protect the establishment and repel any negative energy.

Most ubiquitously seen outside Chinese restaurants, Stone Lions are believed to bring prosperity and good fortune while keeping “troublemakers” or difficult patrons at bay. In a residential setting, Foo Dogs are talismans that ward off evil and bad luck, fortifying the home as a safe haven.

In this regard, Foo Dogs are popular oriental tattoo symbols chosen for good luck and self-protection.

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Tattooing Foo Dogs in a Pair

Foo Dogs come in a pair, comprising of a male and female. Below are some of the traits of each feline.

What the Male and Female Foo Dogs Represent

Male Foo DogFemale Foo Dog

Yang

Yin

Protects the exterior, physical elements

Guards the interior, spirit and soul

Typically has its right front paw clutching an embroidered silk ball, sometimes believed to represent a globe/the world as a whole

Typically holds down a lion cub with its left front paw, believed to represent the cycle of life

He signifies power, authority and strength

She signifies benevolence, support and nurture

Raw; Courage

Refined; Wisdom

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It is not mandatory but suggested to have both Foo Dogs tattooed together, as they work as a duo and are most effective when placed together. They complete and complement each other, displacing any imbalance with Yin and Yang in absolute harmony.

The female should always be positioned (outward) on the right while the male goes on the left. So if you were to have both tattooed, you’d place the lioness on your right arm and the lion on your left arm, for example.

Shi shi/Stone Lion tattoo.

Shi shi/Stone Lion tattoo.

Japanese vs. Chinese Foo Dogs

The Foo Dog (Komainu) statues started to appear in Japan during the Nara period (710-794) and weren’t always carved with the distinguishable traits (i.e. ball and cub) in which we could tell the male and female apart. Instead, one lion would have a closed mouth while the other had an open mouth. This was meant to format the sound “Om” which is the sacred syllable or mantra in Hinduism and Buddhism.

In Japan, the syncretic transliteration of “Om” is “Aun” which meant the beginning and end. These Komainu would be placed outside of temples and shrines, much like their Chinese counterparts.

Another mystical animal used to guard Japanese shrines would be the fox (kitsune), which is also a popular tattoo icon with a fascinating legend.

Karajishi brocade | A mix between a Dragon and a Foo Dog.

Karajishi brocade | A mix between a Dragon and a Foo Dog.

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Are Karajishi Tattoos the Same as Foo Dogs?

Descriptive stories of the lion were generally passed on to Japan, and gained popularity again around the Tang Dynasty (618–907). With a vast majority of the Japanese people never ever actually seen a real-life lion, Japanese artists started to created their own stylized versions based on their interpretation of how lions could have looked like.

The Japanese variation looked like a combination of the oriental Dragon and Foo Dog, with circular spotted patterns on their fur and curly manes. These alterations were called Karajishi (唐獅子 or Lions of the Tang/Chinese Lions), and often mislabeled as Foo Dogs.

Japanese folklore has it that Karajishi lions were cubs of the Dragon. These cubs would be thrown off steep mountain cliffs as a test of strength and a survival of the fittest. However, there aren’t a lot of citable sources to this legend.

Regardless of whether it’s the Karajish or Foo Dogs, they are both similar in that rather than being depicted realistically as a life-like, muscular beast, they aim to convey the emotional expressions and essence of a lion in a stylized form.

Foo Dog Tattoo Meanings

Being the protector of both places of worship and important, honorable institutions, the Foo Dog is a figure of authority and defence. You body is your most valuable “property”, it is a temple that needs to be protected. The placement of your Foo Dog tattoos can imply different things.

They can also be done in a variety of stances or scenes, in some statues, they are carved crouching in an attack position, while others have cubs climbing over the lioness.

Foo Dog in attack mode.

Foo Dog in attack mode.

Foo Dog Tattoo on the Back: Having a Foo Dog tattooed on your back will mean that you have the Imperial Guardian Lions watching over your back, blocking the negative energies that you don’t see coming, such as gossip and betrayal.

Foo Dog Tattoo on the Chest: Tattooing Foo Dogs over your chest can mean that you are protective of your feelings and emotions; allowing only those who are truly trusted close to your heart and inner workings.

Foo Dog Tattoo on the Arm: Foo Dogs can also be tattooed with the male and female on each arm — but remember their correct positions. This is akin to having 2 bodyguards on either sides of you, protecting your entire self.

Design Ideas for Foo Dog Tattoos and Their Significance

Given their inherent meaning, Foo Dogs and Karajishis can be tattooed alone and as is. However, if you intend to weave a story or your personal meaning into the tattoo, below are some helpful and suitable elements to accompany your Foo Dog tattoo.

  • Bamboo: Known for their resilience and sturdy growth, bamboos are considered a symbol of luck and prosperity. Both the bamboo and Foo Dog work hand-in-hand to boost good fortune and show strength.
  • Peony: Also known as Karajishi Botan (“唐獅子牡丹”). As the King of All Beasts, mythology has it that the Lion has absolutely no fear for any other, with the exception of a tiny little bug. In the story, the bug is said to hide in the fur of the lion, biting its way through the skin and eventually getting to the lion’s bones — killing it.

    The only solution is for the lion to lie beneath peony flowers at night, where it is said that dew drops collected and slipping off the peony petals will destroy this life threatening bug. In this, the lion find safety and rest.

    This Yin and Yang, delicate and strong juxtaposition pairs together in a wonderfully intriguing manner. Where the overtly masculine is tempered and balanced by a touch of softness.
  • Lotus: A flower linked to and often seen in Buddhism and Hinduism, the Sacred Lotus is a powerful symbolism of overcoming adversities to reach your fullest potential in life. It is a plant which grows out of murky waters, pushing its way out of the mud and up onto the surface of the pond.

    Many Buddhist and Hindu deities are depicted meditating atop a lotus flower, as such, it also represents wisdom and spiritual awakening.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you tattoo them on the same arm?

Answer: Yes, I have seen them in sleeves where one is slightly above the other like they were playing and chasing each other. Here's another example you can refer to www.facebook.com/chronicink/photos/a.126223914101034/1643308975725846/?type=3&theater

© 2019 Peony